Canada's refusal to accept Guantanamo Uyghurs reflects weakness in relationship with China

Mehmet Tohti [Former Vice President, World Uyghur Congress]: "Kory Teneycke, spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told the Associated Free Press that "Canada is not looking to take any detainees from Guantánamo...In the case of the Uighurs and other Guantanamo Bay detainees Canada has no interest", in response to the Obama Administration's request of settling some of the Uyghur detainees kept in Guantanamo.
This is not a first rejection, however, as Ottawa has twice rejected previous requests from Washington for the relocation of already cleared Uyghur detainees in Guantanamo.

First of all, let us try to understand the background of Uyghur detainees who have been wrongfully detained for seven years without any charge of wrongdoing. They are Uyghurs from East Turkistan, renamed as Xinjiang Uyghurs Autonomous region after the Chinese military invasion in 1949. Since then Uyghurs have been the most prosecuted group in China for their distinct culture, unique national identity and the strategic importance of their territory and its abundant natural resources.

Like Tibetans, Uyghurs continued to resist against the fierce and systematic campaign of the Chinese government in order to keep their national existence. The mass influx of Chinese settlers backed by the central government not only has changed the demographic ratio in the region from 6% Chinese in 1950 to more than 60% Chinese today, but has also forced Uyghurs into economic segregation, political marginalization, religious prosecution and cultural assimilation in order to promote Chinese settlements as the dominant force. Many of those Uyghurs, like thousands of other Uyghur refuges, including myself, fled from Chinese prosecution to seek a new life.

The September 11 terrorist attack has also changed the lives of many expatriate Uyghurs. After being sold by Pakistani bounty hunters to the US military, they were brought to Guantanamo without having any clue about who is Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

US Military tribunals since 2003 have cleared them from any wrongdoing and declared they are ready for release and the Pentagon has already sent five of the 23 Uyghurs to Albania for settlement on May 2006. Then Judge Ricardo Urbina of the US District Court ruled in September 2008 that the 17 wrongly imprisoned Uyghur detainees at Guantánamo must be allowed entry into the United States. In February 2009, Sweden accepted Mr. Adel Hakimjan, one of 5 Gitmo Uyghur detainees settled in Albania as a refuge despite enormous diplomatic pressure exerted by China's government to prevent it. On May 21, 2009, in his televised remarks, President Obama confirmed that 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo should not have been there in the first place and should be released. A number of EU countries are now working quietly to resettle qualified Guantanamo detainees in an effort to help shut down the Guantanamo detention facilities. China, however, has categorically classified them as "terrorists" and blocked other countries from taking them. Therefore the US government refused to send them back to China due to the Chinese record of torture, prosecution and even execution without proper legal process.

In my opinion, Canada's flat rejection of Uyghur detainees from Guantanamo upon the US request is a shortsighted decision and a reflection of Canadian weakness. Furthermore, it could be seen as a lost of opportunity, especially in connection with the arrest in China of a Uyghur Canadian, Mr. Huseyin Celil, who is sentenced to life imprisonment for the ambiguous charge of "separatism" despite Canada's strong expression. Many hoped that Canada would see the issue of Guantanamo Uyghurs as a rare opportunity to restore its credibility in handling the case of Mr. Celil and show its teeth to the Chinese government as a Canadian citizen continues to serve his unfounded conviction in a Chinese jail.

The Chinese government's intransigence for Prime Minister Harper's repeated requests to President Hu Jintao, China's flat denial of Canadian consular access to Mr. Celil's case contrary to the consular agreement between the two countries and China's unfounded conviction with life imprisonment without any due process has been huge embarrassment for Canada and continues to be so. So in certain sense, Ottawa's rejection of the possibility of resettling some of the Guantanamo Uyghurs is a rejection of an opportunity to create a window of talks with the Chinese to advance Mr. Celil's case. Ottawa has now found itself on the same page as the Chinese government on the specific issue of Guantanamo Uyghurs. Ultimately this serves no Canadian interest.

Unlike others in Guantanamo, the 17 Uyghurs detainees possess strong political values and sooner or later will be taken by either the US or other EU countries for resettlement. Yet China has successfully invalidated and nullified the strong remarks made by the Canadian Prime Minister and has disregarded repeated requests of Canadian officials on Mr. Celil's case, thus forcing Canada to adhere to Chinese terms for normalizing the frozen relationship after Mr. Celil's conviction. Meanwhile, Canada missed a rare opportunity created by the Uyghur detainees in Guantanamo for a possible initiation of dialogue with the Chinese government without a proper evaluation of its political values.

From this perspective, unlike Australia, Sweden and other EU Countries, Canada has become the first country that flatly rejected the settlement request of Guantanamo Uyghurs without giving any chance to the Chinese government to lobby against it. Such a national embarrassment is yet to be digested."

 

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